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Theories of Analyzing the society

In sociology, several theories provide a broad perspective that help to explain the different aspects of social life.  A theory in a sociological sense, is a way to explain social interactions and to create testable concepts about society.  Today sociologists explore about three different sociological perspectives which include the symbolic interactionist perspective, the functionalist perspective, and the conflict perspective. These three outlooks, offer sociologists theoretical paradigms for explaining how society affects people and how people affect society.  The perspectives help to stress the broader social contexts by examining an individual based on their gender, race, religion, ethnicity, age, education, etc. and comparing these social positions to their behavior in society.  Each perspective distinctly develops an idea of society, social influences, and human behavior.

According to the functionalist perspective, each aspect of society is interdependent and contributes to society’s functioning as a whole.  Structural functionalists aim to explain the nature of social stability and the relationship between the numerous structures in society by examining the function of each to determine how it contributes to society as a whole.  A major structure in society, that structural functionalists analyze is gender.  Gender as we know is the state of being either male or female.  However, from a sociological view, gender is a concept that determines how society manages each sex group as well as the set of behaviors associated with each sex.  Structural functionalists believe that differentiating and categorizing between gender leads to stability in society.  Functionalists see gender roles as a necessity to establish the different tasks within a family.  For example, women are meant to be more nurturing because of their duty to breastfeed while men should be the breadwinners.  A structural functionalist is most likely in favor of the existence of hegemonic masculinity which pertains to the idea that men are dominant and favored and their power goes unnoticed by the people who are beneath them.

Talcott Parsons was a sociologist known for his functionalist view on gender during the 1950s.  Parsons developed a concept known as the sex role theory which is ultimately fairly similar to hegemonic masculinity.  He believed that identifying gender roles was how to create the perfect nuclear family.  Meaning, the male of the family worked outside of the home and brought home an income while the female spouse stayed inside fulfilling household chores. The children of the family are raised based on their gender’s role and are expected to meet their labor demands.  Parsons was a firm believer that, “social structures such as gender and the division of labor are held in place because they work to ensure a stable society” (Conley 289).  In today’s time, sociologists have several critiques about Parsons’s sex role theory.  Today, more often than not, both spouses in a household are members of the working class so and Parsons’s idea of the nuclear family is threatened.  In the past, a woman’s status was determined by the status of her husband, but now society doesn’t accept this assumption.  Many sociologists believe that structural functionalism is outdated and is no longer useful in examining our society today.

Opposite of structural functionalism, symbolic interactionism directs sociologists to consider the symbols, meanings, and values that occur during our everyday life.   Sociologists examine what these symbols mean, how people interact with one another, and behaviors associated with people’s actions.  Society is thought to be socially constructed through human interpretation because people interpret one another’s behavior which in turn forms bonds, relationships, and meanings.  We use socially constructed meanings of gender to help us decide who to hang out with, how to interact with someone, and to help us determine a person’s behavior or language.  Erving Goffman came up with the dramaturgical theory of society which encapsulates symbolic interactionism by using language of theater to explain how we function in society.  Goffman’s argument consisted of comparing society to a theatrical performance.  Every individual is an actor fulfilling their role to please the audience, but are limited by their costumes, scripts, and sets.  Goffman also goes on to describe the difference between a front stage and back stage.  In other words, we may act one way in order to fulfill our societal role, but behind the scenes or behind closed doors we may break away from whatever role we were just playing.  Goffman’s proposal gets across the idea that human behavior is influenced by symbols and meaning that are shaped and maintained through symbolic interaction with others.

Symbolic interactionism examines how individuals act within our society while functionalism looks at the large structures within our society.  Functionalists make a critique of symbolic interactionism as not seeing the big picture that functionalists focus on.  For example, a symbolic interactionist would not account for large social forces such as racism or gender inequality, which strongly influence how we interpret race and gender.  A functionalist examines the behaviors of entire family systems or groups of people while interactionists look at an individuals’ behavior. A functionalist would also make the critique that symbolic interactionism is not a unified theory; it is a framework that can support many specific theories.  For example, Goffman’s dramaturgical theory has concepts within the interactionist perspective that are more clearly defined, but still capable of deception.  A functionalist perspective is routine and can usually predict how something will happen.  For instance, Talcott Parsons’s sex role theory displays each person’s role in the family and the family seems to stay stable.  In symbolic interactionism, it is difficult to predict how a person will react or interpret a symbol or behavior.  Using both perspectives, sociologists are able to interpret human behavior based off a large group or off an individual.

Theories in sociology provide us with different perspectives with which to view our social world.  A functionalist perspective attempts to explain how society functions as a whole and it examines large concepts such as gender or race.  Parsons developed a sex role theory geared towards households that worked in the 1950’s, but does not hold true today.  Gender roles are continuously changing and the concept of hegemonic masculinity may diminish, especially with the rise of feminism happening.  Symbolic interactionism examines individuals’ believing in similar meanings, symbols, or behaviors.  Although functionalism and interactionism have several differences, both theories are successful in grouping individuals together, by some sort of similarity.  Symbolic interactionism and functionalism assign society’s association on communication, institutions, and societal norms.  Interactionism attributes to humans’ interpretations of meanings, whereas functionalists emphasize the functions that a role played on the individual.  When these two sociological perspectives, come together or are looked at separately a sociologist is able to understand how our society functions.



Conley, Dalton. You May Ask Yourself: An Introduction to Thinking like a Sociologist. 4th ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2011. Print.